He’s lived with a brain tumor for nearly two decades, but it doesn’t stop this Lake Mary grad from inspiring others in the classroom, on the field, and in the community
Ethan Shannon is an accomplished athlete who just graduated in the top 10 of his class at Lake Mary High School. He’s on his way to the University of Florida where he will continue his progress in academics and athletics.
He’s come a long way in 18 years. When Ethan was seven months old, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
“We started noticing symptoms when he was just four months old,” says mom Karen Shannon.
Ethan’s head was constantly tilted to the side, and Karen noticed some uncontrolled eye movement. After consultations with several specialists and some physical therapy, it was determined that Ethan should have an MRI. It revealed a two-centimeter mass on the right side of his brain.
“Surprised was an understatement,” remembers Ethan’s dad, Scott. “We were floored when we found out. We got the news, and I was devastated, hoping it was somehow incorrect.”
Karen remembers well the shock she felt at hearing the diagnosis.
“We definitely didn’t expect that,” she recalls. “He was a pretty happy baby. There were no other symptoms.”
Five days later, Ethan endured a six-plus-hour craniotomy to remove the tumor, which was located in his cerebellum. Dr. Luis Rodriguez, the neurosurgeon who performed the surgery at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood, Florida, was confident that Ethan was young enough to overcome any of the deficits that the craniotomy could cause. The doctor said it would mainly affect his gross motor skills and his coordination.
“I remember I didn’t want him going into surgery – you’re just not sure how it would go,” says Karen.
While the tumor, itself, was tested and found to be benign, some of the tissue had grown onto Ethan’s brain stem, where the
cranial nerves are situated, and there was a concern that it might still grow. Karen and Scott discussed chemotherapy with an oncologist.
“I was still in denial, and I said, ‘So babies get cancer? And you give chemo to babies?’” remembers Karen. “It was a hard concept to take in.”
Karen and Scott consulted with brain-tumor teams across the country for guidance – Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Boston’s Mass General, Duke University Hospital, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. Rodriguez recommended St. Jude because it was home to cutting-edge treatment and some of the most skilled neurosurgeons in the country.
Four months later, another MRI showed that Ethan’s tumor had grown by 40 percent. His family considered more surgery and possible chemotherapy, but the experts at St. Jude weren’t convinced the tumor had actually spread.
“They wanted to watch it a little longer and do another scan,” says Scott. “Fast-forward, and we’ve been watching it stay stable for 17 years.”
Giving Thanks and Giving Back
While Ethan completed physical therapy, occupational therapy, audiology screenings, and had eye surgery, he’s never needed another operation on his brain. Initially, he required monthly checkups at St. Jude, which eventually spaced out to annual visits.
“It’s been a long road, and he had to overcome a lot to be where he is today – thanks to a lot of help from St. Jude and some good fortune along the way,” says Scott.
“He was in really good hands at St. Jude,” adds Karen. “It’s one big family. I don’t know what we would have done without them.”
Over the years, Ethan has participated in several medical studies for St. Jude, and he serves as a patient ambassador, giving countless talks to potential donors and taking part in local fundraisers.
“It’s amazing what St. Jude has done for me,” says Ethan. “My goal is to express my gratitude and show why donations to St. Jude are for such a good cause.”
Taking the Field
An athlete at heart, Ethan tried his hand at nearly every sport as soon as doctors would let him.
“When he was younger, there were residual issues with coordination and balance,” says Karen. “Therapy got him so far, but ultimately he had to be motivated to do a lot himself, and sports was really the outlet for that.”
Ethan played soccer, basketball, golf, tennis, karate, flag football, and even joined a swim team. But then, in sixth grade, he asked to play tackle football.
Karen and Scott consulted the team at St. Jude as well as Dr. Rodriguez to assess the risks.
“It’s hard as a parent, to think about what he’s been through, but you have to live, too,” says Scott.
“The surgeon said that he’s no more at risk than any other kid out there,” remembers Karen.
They decided to give it a shot, and Ethan excelled at football.
“When we allowed him to play, I saw him come out of his shell,” says Karen.
A great group of coaches and families helped create a confident, dedicated athlete. Ethan began playing lacrosse that same year.
Ethan leaves high school as a well-rounded, philanthropic student, and an honor graduate. He maintained a 4.6 GPA while working and playing varsity lacrosse and football for three years at Lake Mary High, earning numerous awards on and off the field. Ethan was admitted to the University of Florida Honors Program and is attending on a full Bright Futures scholarship. He plans to major in engineering and continue playing club lacrosse.
Ethan’s past has shaped his future, which, as a 2020 graduate, can feel uncertain.
“Every year, when I go to St. Jude, or any time I go to a St. Jude event, I hear the stories about kids who have had it way harder than I’ve had,” Ethan says. “It’s given me a mindset to appreciate everything that you’re given and take advantage of every opportunity you have in life.”
“He’s learned to be resilient,” says Scott.
Dwelling on what he may have missed during the last quarter of his senior year doesn’t help anything, Ethan says, so he’s focusing on the future.
“I’ve tried to stay positive,” he says, “and look at what’s coming.”
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